The Bhagavad Gita—the “Song of Spirit”—has been a living scripture and moral doctrine, a veritable “golden rule” of Indian civilization for thousands of years. Its seven-hundred verses are a sacred dialogue between the Lord Krishna in his role as Cosmic Protector and his chief disciple, the Pandava Prince Arjuna, that begins on the eve of an impending battle between two royal families—the Pandavas and the Kauravas—on the plains of Kurukshetra as each asserts their intent to govern their ancestral kingdom.
Written in the form and tradition of the sacred writings of the historical period, the Gita is an allegory that uses the territorial battle for an external kingdom as a metaphor to depict the scope, the means, and the bounty of the inner heroic adventure of the soul’s search for God, the pivotal ascendancy of Self-awareness that is the essence of India’s Sanatana Dharma—Eternal Religion.
To readers of any faith, to those who hunger for direction and solace amidst the chaos of modern life, the Gita is a sheltering narrative that blueprints the path to self-mastery over our fears and limitations on the plains of our own gradually expanding consciousness. Its universal and eternal appeal lies in its ability to be both a step-by-step treatise on the sacred science of spiritual transformation and a catalyst for initiating an intimate dialogue between Spirit and soul and the saving grace this partnership provides.
Paramahansa Yogananda’s posthumously published, groundbreaking two-volume translation and commentary, God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita—Royal Science of God-Realization, is an in-depth account of the material, psychological, ethical, and spiritual meaning of this venerable classic of world literature. Illuminated by Yogananda’s own God-realization, it provides a mystical, yet eminently practical vision of the traditional Golden Rule and a profound message of hope for those striving to live the full vision of a spiritual life.
In the following interview, Brother Satyananda, a monk for forty-six years of the Self-Realization Fellowship monastic community founded by Yogananda, offers insight into the precepts of one of the world’s most beloved sacred writings. He serves as the minister in charge of the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades, California, and lectures throughout the world on Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings.
MW: Paramahansa Yogananda’s interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita is as rich in revelation about the human condition as it is about the practices and scope of India’s ancient science of meditation. As the story begins, an aged, blind king asks an observer of the historical conflict unfolding before them how each side fared that day. “What did they?” wonders the king. What was the outcome of their efforts to gain the upper hand on the battlefield? This is a question Yogananda suggests contemporary spiritual aspirants also ask as we observe the competing forces that vie for attention in our own lives.
What is the golden rule that is the Gita’s benchmark of victory?
BS: Throughout the Gita, Krishna apprises his disciple, Arjuna—and the reader—of various strategies for mastering the challenging circumstances in our daily lives. Your question captures the essential nature of the Bhagavad Gita as both a call to action and as a prescription for living according to dharma, living according to actions that are in harmony with our human and divine natures and with cosmic law.
Krishna presents a broad-spectrum approach toward the entire field of action of daily life in Chapter 18, Verse 63. He says, “Thus hath wisdom, most secret of all secrets, been given to thee by Me. After exhaustively reflecting about it, act as thou desirest.” Vimrsyaitad, the original Sanskrit word for “reflecting,” is also interpreted as “meditate to know Truth.” So, I would say, “meditate then act” is the golden rule of the Gita.
The field of action of daily life, our Kurukshetra, is often complex. There are many factors, many competing forces to consider when deciding how to respond about what confronts us—especially these days. We’re often unsure how to manage everything we’re up against. “Meditate then act” simplifies our decision-making. No matter what’s going on in our life, no matter what we may be facing, no matter how complex things seem, this simple strategy yields the wisest possible choice in every situation. When we respond to our challenges in a reflective way, not with a hypercritical eye but with the intention to discover what works best in a situation, we learn from our experience, and we teach ourselves to live in harmony with the sacred laws that uphold the universe.
Verse 63 presents three of the four action steps of this strategy: The first step is to meditate, to clear our consciousness of negativity and restlessness and connect with an inner calm in mind and heart. The second step is to make the best choice we can with the information we have, to tap into our conscience, our intuition-guided free choice born of calmness, that quiet voice within us that naturally guides our discernment toward pure motive and intent. Others can advise us, they may even try to influence us, but we’re the ones who have to act, so we’re the ones who must choose. The third step is to take action based on our awakened intuition.
Taking action is often hard to do. We’ve all been in situations where we’re faced with doing something we don’t want to do. We dread it. We postpone it hoping something will come along that allows us to get out of making a decision. But the longer we delay, if we procrastinate and make excuses, we avoid our dharma, our duty, and the greater the consequences for non-action become.
This is Arjuna’s dilemma. He does not want to do battle with his relatives. Krishna understands Arjuna’s reluctance but counters his every excuse with the best advice he can give his beloved disciple—to meditate and connect with his intuition to determine his best next step, and then take right action. The more we consciously practice this process, the more we gain confidence in it and in our choices. Start with small things then work your way up to the bigger decisions.
MW: Sometimes we learn what works by experiencing what doesn’t work.
BS: Yes. However, we learn very slowly that way. We blunder our way through. We blame ourselves or others for our mistakes. We feel regret. Part of what makes Krishna’s rule golden is that we don’t have to wait for anything outside ourselves to occur before we can take constructive action. And, when we follow this strategy things sometimes work out better than we expected because our choices come from the calm center of our being.
MW: We also have the consolation—the gift—of knowing we’ve made a good effort and done everything we could to resolve the problem.
You said there were four steps in this process.
BS: Here, the Gita tells us something very beautiful. The fourth step is to put our decision in God’s hands, to say, “The stage has been set, I’ve done my best with the tools and information I have. The outcome is up to You.” We are not abdicating our power but invoking support from God Himself/Herself, from Cosmic Law. We’re not alone in the process. This shores up our insecurities and gives us the courage to do what we have to do. God watches the heart. A pure motive goes a long way.
We live in an uncertain, unstable world. We’re all experiencing this right now. There is so much we don’t know. We don’t want to make a mistake. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s human nature to be a little insecure about our choices, but when the stakes are high, we get intimidated. If we do not have a decision-making process we have confidence in, that empowers us—a golden rule we can turn to and implement with confidence—it’s hard to say, “OK, I don’t like having to make this decision. I would prefer not to ever do this. But if I delay any longer, the consequences are unacceptable. So, I do my best and give the results to You.”
MW: It’s hard not to be intimidated by being intimidated!
BS: Yes. However, there are consequences for all our actions, including for not taking action that can be far greater than being intimidated. Procrastination breeds regret. Timing is a big factor. Until we are aware of all this, our decision-making is tentative or faulty. When we are proactive, when we are calm, we are more inclined to do what is good and true. Success gives us the confidence to take on the next thing. How we move through these things shapes what happens and who we become.
MW: What if we want to act but the timing doesn’t feel right?
BS: One of General George Patton’s principles for confronting an enemy was, “Never decide too early or too late.” He would gather information about the enemy, about the field of battle, about the weather, the readiness of his own troops, and so forth, and when he felt things were as close to optimal as they could be, he moved decisively. But not before.
When we follow this strategy in the Gita, the calm mind and heart can alert you when it’s time to act. Waiting for right timing is different than procrastinating. You are making a choice to act in tune with your inner guidance, not sticking your head in the sand. You’re aware things are not yet ready, that you need to wait.
MW: Yogananda tells us that as we practice this process, we begin to express what he refers to in the Gita as the “twenty-six ennobling qualities” of the soul: fearlessness, purity of heart, steadfastness, self-discipline, straight forwardness, truth, absence of wrath, forgiveness, patience, and so on. Just as we think of compassion and kindness as organic to the practice of the traditional Golden Rule, are these qualities organic to the Gita’s golden rule?
BS: I’d like to suggest these qualities represent skills—let’s say noble skills—that are essential to applying the Gita’s strategy. They’re also essential because they’re an expression of Goodness, of virtue in the world.
MW: Yogananda puts fearlessness at the top of the list.
BS: Fear is probably the greatest obstacle to our happiness and success. Fear does have a cautionary value. Some things are better to avoid. We must be cautiously courageous, be aware of various forces of adversity that derail us so we can successfully navigate difficult circumstances.
However, fear disturbs the heart and mind. It interrupts our ability to cultivate the inner peace we’re seeking in meditation and creates an attachment to the things we fear losing. And, if you’re fearful, you can’t be of very much help to others. Fear can also manifest as insecurity, anxiety, and stress which influence our actions and our reactions. If we notice we’re reacting or catastrophizing—creating worst-case scenarios about what might happen—we can choose to be proactive, to stop our thoughts, look at what’s influencing our reactions, and choose to be influenced by love. When we calm the heart, these ennobling skills come to our aid. If we’re afraid, we cannot embrace any golden rule.
Yogananda equates fearlessness with “faith in God.” When we are facing situations beyond our control, situations that have very real, terrifying consequences, faith in God becomes our Golden Rule. We put our fear in God’s hands and let it rest there and it no longer paralyzes us. We can then be receptive to the Great Comfort. How things ultimately turn out may not change, but we change.
MW: In his Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda says, “The rishis taught that each human being has been created by God as a soul that will uniquely manifest some special attribute of the Infinite before resuming its Absolute Identity. All men, endowed thus with a facet of Divine Individuality, are equally dear to God.”
Is this quality who we really are? Do we each have a unique, personal Golden Rule?
BS: I think of this attribute as an ennobling quality of the soul, a “Signature Virtue,” so to speak, given to us by God that guides our soul journey back to God. It’s part of our core being, a highly developed part of our character we effortlessly utilize every day. We may not be aware of it because it’s so much a part of everything we think and do.
Once we know it’s there, we can learn to seek it out and connect with it. It’s something that’s well developed within us, something we already do well. It’s usually something we are quite passionate about. It’s also the part of ourselves we trust. We feel good when we exercise it. It energizes us and gives us strength. We feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. When we consciously develop it, it helps us reach our highest potential intended by God.
It’s important to use our Signature Virtue to its full advantage. For example, a woman recently approached me after Sunday service and began telling me how she’d come face to face with several unpleasant qualities in herself since Covid. She devoutly identified her faults but was extremely critical of herself. I said, “I really admire your honesty. I think it’s a virtue native to your soul. You’re facing these issues head on, and you want to change. Don’t be so harsh on yourself. I want to compliment you on your honesty.”
Her eyes got really big, and she said, “When I was a little girl, my brothers and sisters called me ‘Little Miss Honesty.’ It’s always been a part of me, and I’ve always admired people who are openly honest.” I suggested she reflect on how her honesty serves and does not serve her and she left feeling quite a bit better about herself.
MW: Our Signature Virtue can be a driving force behind what we do, but it’s more about how we are. Correct?
BS: Yes, it’s also how we apply the Golden Rule. A Golden Rule is universal in nature; it can be viewed through the lens of any virtue, by any person, in any situation. When we understand our Signature Virtue is a soul quality that’s emerging and wants to be expressed at a very high level of competency, it’s very empowering. It becomes a source of strength for us—our “soul-esteem,” our self-esteem based on our soul qualities.
MW: What propels us to cultivate our soul qualities?
BS: Happiness. We feel happy when we connect with our soul. We feel strong when we connect with our soul. We feel energized. We are better able to bring happiness to others. We feel that we have a gift to give—something inside us that we love and trust—that we’re not just serving other people’s needs. The more consciously we develop these qualities, the greater our intention and purpose to share them becomes, and the more powerful the gift becomes. We feel well used by God. As Yogananda says, “the channel is blessed by what flows through it.”
MW: The prospect of moving forward in happiness rather than in fear or crisis management is very appealing!
BS: Well, there’s always suffering, but as we grow in wisdom, we discover we have better alternatives.
MW: It’s clear there are other rules beyond what we typically think of as the Golden Rule that are golden. Why is the traditional Golden Rule golden?
BS: Because it’s universal; it’s expressed in some way in every scripture, in every faith, in every philosophy. It’s eternal; it stands the test of time. It can be proven. It can help us create greater understanding, happiness, and success.
MW: I had the thought as you were talking that it’s also fluid; there’s none of the gender, racial, economic, or generational boundaries that divide us.
BS: That’s probably part of its magic. It’s a dharmic common denominator, a universal truth that helps uphold the social order.
MW: It seems that the deeper ‘why’ of the traditional Golden Rule is that others are our larger self, that others are, as we are, a unique expression of God.
Imagine if we saw ourselves and others in terms of our Signature Virtues! Like lighting candles in the darkness.
BS: Our soul is in a perfect state of God consciousness. We have the potential to express all its virtues. Our part is to cultivate and perfect our potential, to manifest the unfolding state of our soul. The more we become aware of this, the more conscious we can make it, the more beautiful it becomes.
As we do this, over time, we realize that unity with others, with all Life, with God, is the fulfillment we seek. We are created to expand, not to contract. Unity brings great joy. This is what we see in avatars, divine incarnations who have walked the Earth and broadcast virtue—any virtue, every virtue—everywhere they go.
MW: I recently heard the poet David Whyte speak about the idea that the purpose of overcoming our limitations and fears—of cultivating virtue—is to return to the world with bliss-bestowing hands. This seems to be the end goal of the Gita’s message.
BS: Who we become is our ultimate accomplishment. As we begin to discover who we really are we want to grow and develop ourselves so we can give others the best of ourselves. We are interconnected. We are not isolated. We have roots in each other. The unity we seek, the happiness we seek, the sustained fulfilment we seek is connected to others. To live and serve with “bliss-bestowing hands” is the fulfilment of every virtue, the fulfillment of every golden rule. ◆
This excerpt appears in our Winter 2021-22 issue, “The Golden Rule.” Purchase the issue here.